The gyro is a Greek sandwich served on pita bread. The Greek word gyro means spin, which is what the meat does as it is being cooked on its vertical spit. The gyro meat cooks as it turns and the outer part is shaved off and served on the pita with tzatziki sauce and other toppings. The meat used for gyros is usually a combination of beef and lamb.
The gyro is a European adaptation of the Middle Eastern shawarma and arrived in Greece with refugees from Asia Minor in the early 20th century. Both shawarma and gyros descended from the doner kebab. To make gyros, the meat is marinated with a variety of seasonings. While the spices and their proportions can vary from cook to cook, most gyros are seasoned with the same set of traditional Greek ingredients. Here is a look at some of the most popular gyro spices.
The Greeks call allspice bahari. The spice was discovered in Jamaica by Columbus when he was on his second voyage, He referred to it as Jamaica pepper. It was common in European cooking by the 16th century. Today, most allspice is still grown in Jamaica. The flavor has become a staple spice for Greek meat dishes, including gyro meat. Its flavor is sweet and warm with a subtle bitterness and mild clove-like notes.
Dill is one of several culinary herbs that are related to parsley. While dill is traditionally associated with fish dishes, it is quite versatile and has many applications. Both the seeds and leaves may be used to flavor gyro meat. Dill’s flavor and aroma have a lemony element that is accompanied by slight licorice notes and a touch of celery.
The Greek name for oregano is rigani. It is arguably the most popular spice in Greek cuisine. In Greece, oregano is sold in bunches tied at the stems. It is important to note that Greek oregano has a slightly different flavor when compared to other types of oregano. It is as important in Greek soups and tomato-based dishes as it is for the flavor of gyro meat. Oregano has a pungent woodsy fragrance with a hint of bitterness that goes particularly well with savory flavors.
Mint is another Mediterranean herb used in Greek cooking and that provides one of the flavors associated with gyros. It is used in numerous Greek dishes like stuffed grape leaves (dolmathakia) and meatballs. Mint is one of the herbs used in tzatziki sauce and it complements gyros with a sweet, herbaceous flavor that also has a slight cooling effect.
You will see thyme in Greek recipes for everything from soups to vegetables and even some bread. Both fresh and dried thyme may be used to flavor gyro meat but the fresh herb is preferred. Thyme gives your gyro meat a minty, woodsy flavor with a slight bitterness.
Gyros may contain garlic in the marinade as well as in the accompanying tzatziki sauce. Garlic’s flavor includes pungent sulfur and herbaceous notes with a rich umami quality that complements most savory dishes including gyros.
Cumin doesn’t show up in a lot of Greek recipes but it does show up in gyro recipes. The use of cumin may be a remnant of the gyro’s Middle Eastern heritage. Cumin has a warm bitterness with a musky, earthy aroma that lends itself to meaty flavors.